In the months leading up to this trip, it became clear to me that Luang Prabang was highly off-radar with fellow travelers. So many people asked “Why Laos?” Well, years ago I had been flipping through a magazine and came across an article by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love. The article was about this small town in northern Laos situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Gilbert had visited the town years ago, but said it was a place she would never return to – her time in Luang Prabang was so perfect that she couldn’t risk tainting the memory with another visit. Ubud swept me off my feet four years ago, so Gilbert’s love for the town immediately resonated with me, and I knew I had to visit.
Life moved at a slower pace in Luang Prabang. We spent our first day on bicycle riding through the colonial wonderland with colorful French Lao facades to our left, and the majestic Nam Khan River to our right. The place was an Instagrammer’s dreamland. Colorful temples, street food stalls and bustling markets lined the charming streets. I felt hints of Ubud, Hoi An and Chiang Mai in the maze of vibrant corridors, but Luang Prabang really was its own breed of wonder.
And the adventure didn’t end in town. There was so much to experience outside of Luang Prabang, a tropical haven of rivers, steamy peaks, waterfalls and caves. My favorite morning took us into the countryside on motorbike riding the Pak Ou Loop. It was an epic journey through rice paddies, lush jungle, tiny villages and fields of water buffalo – all along the gushing Mekong River.
When I wasn’t adventuring in Luang Prabang, I was eating. The night market buffets were bursting with good vibes, packed with people and massive dishes piled high with noodles, rice, meats, skewers, fish and veggies. The place was everyone’s go-to staple at night. And then there was my favorite street eat – a little noodle stall at the corner of Sisavangvong Rd. and Ounheun Rd. Every afternoon a kindly man and his wife would set up shop – a tiny table with six stools and large pots of piping noodle soup.
I was interested in volunteering while in Laos and while researching travel plans I came across several articles about Free the Bears, a conservation organization doing rescue work throughout Southeast Asia to combat the threat to the region’s Asiatic Black Bear, Sun Bear and Sloth Bear. The organization’s Laos sanctuary was home to dozens of Asiatic Black Bears, many rescued from bile farms throughout the country with stories that absolutely shattered my heart.
The more I read, the more I wanted to meet the bears, and I arranged a day for us to volunteer at their conservation center located out near Kuang Si Falls. We spent the day with the organization’s Laos Director learning about their conservation work in Laos, and hearing horrifying stories of bear rescues from bile farms and wildlife traffickers. The bears were a joy to see while we built a wall for the sanctuary’s cub enclosure, but it was a day of heartbreak and so many tears.
We also spent an afternoon at Big Brother Mouse, a little book shop in Luang Prabang where every afternoon local children show up to practice English conversation with foreigners who stop in to visit. It was dumping rain, so we pulled up on bicycle about five minutes late to a shop full of 30 kids, ranging from primary school to high school eagerly waiting to practice their English. I sat with a group of girls, and we spent two hours talking about our favorite foods, hobbies and family. They were a joy to meet – lots of giggles as they taught me words and phrases in Lao!
Unlike Gilbert, I loved Luang Prabang too much to stay away. I’ll definitely be back …